My handler first approached me at UCLA in the fall of 2011.
"Nice day," the young man in the black cargo pants and black button-up shirt said, sitting next to me on the bench where I was waiting for the bus.
"I suppose," I said, smiling and looking down. I'd been told my English was perfect, but I still wasn't comfortable speaking it. It didn't sound -- to me, anyway -- like the English I heard on TV.
"You're Li Jun Fan, right? I read your paper on nanotechnology and congenital heart defects," the young man said.
I looked at him a little more closely -- maybe 25, so too old to be a traditional undergrad, but too young to be faculty. Grad student, maybe? Medium-length, disheveled black hair and three or four days of beard stubble. He looked like he played bass in a rock band, not like the type of guy who read biomedical engineering papers for kicks.
"Huh. You did?" I said.
"Sure," he said, grinning. "Interesting stuff. I'd love to buy you a coffee and discuss it."
I wasn't sure, as I hadn't hung out around enough American men to pick up on it, but I got the distinct impression the young man was hitting on me. Just as I was trying to figure out how to tell him that no, I wasn't gay, he saw the wheels turning in my brain and held up a hand as if to say "whoa, there."
"Not what you're thinking," he said with a smirk. "I really am interested in the research you're doing."
Something still struck me as strange about the young man, but I couldn't see the harm in a cup of coffee -- I was hitting my midafternoon slump, anyway.
"Sure. Coffee would be good," I said.
"Great. I'll drive. I'm Fernando, by the way."
If I hadn't already been a bit suspicious (and I was, by the way), that would have torn it for me. I didn't know the intricacies of English names, and I wasn't an expert in genetics, but I knew that Fernando was a Hispanic first name -- and this guy was about as Hispanic as I was.
Of course, as I'd later learn, when you're working as a covert operative for the Central Intelligence Agency, it's not really wise to use your own name.
* * *
Fernando and I met six more times before I finished my doctorate at UCLA, always at the same place -- the Coffee Bean on Gayley Avenue near the University. He didn't try to pitch me or turn me until the fourth meeting, but by that point, I was ready to be turned.
"So, you're a Chinese national. What do you think they'll have you doing when you go home?"
"Research. Nanotechnology to cure previously uncurable health problems," I said. "I'm a biomedical engineer. That's what I do."
"Sure. So long as that serves the State, I suppose. But you're dealing with overpopulation as it is. Do you really think they want you to extend lifespans?"
I sighed -- not because I thought the question was stupid, but rather the opposite, because I'd had the same thought many a time.
"Look, you and I both know that an. . . engagement between our two nations is in the cards. It's not if, it's just when. Both of us have been building up our militaries for quite a while now. The math works out -- one of us'll have to take down the other eventually."
"I hope you're incorrect about that, but I think you're probably right."
"So the question is, which ideology do we want to live under? Our capitalism, which I'll admit is a mess right now --"
"Or our communism, which is even more of a mess. One of them can be repaired, I suppose. Saved."
"And the other?" Fernando asked.
"Is communism," I said, smirking though I didn't find it particularly funny.
"So if I was to ask you to keep the lines of communication open with me -- just me -- how would you feel about that?"
"Like pen pals?" I said, still smirking.
"You know where I work. You know what I mean."
"Yeah. Yeah, I do."
"You won't have to do anything against your people. Just keep your eyes open, and I'll check in with you once in a while."
I thought it over for a few minutes. Fernando was perceptive enough not to bother me while I was thinking -- we just both sipped our coffee and watched the people go by.
"Fine. I'm with you, Fernando."
* * *
Seven years and change later, I was returning to my apartment after a long day of work. I'd been put in charge of a project that I hated the thought of -- a nano-bug that would kill American soldiers on the battlefield. In a few months, my unit would be shipped off to a secret lab in Pyongyang to begin critical design on the bug, a project under the aegis of "Bad Omen."
I'd expected to hear from Fernando in some way after China and America went to war, but I hadn't. Not until that day.
"This place hardly befits a man of your educational standing," a deep voice said as I entered my tiny, dark apartment in Beijing.
I flipped the lights on to find Fernando at the small dining table in my kitchen, smoking a cigarette into a large, clay ashtray.
"Our borders have been closed for months, Fernando. How'd you get into the country?" I said quietly, closing the door.
"I was in before the borders closed, my friend. I just didn't leave when the rest of the Americans did."
"How've you managed to stay hidden all this time? To not get caught?"
"I'm talented," he said, snuffing out his cigarette. "You don't mind if I smoke, do you?"
"Not at all. They're your lungs."
"Can't smoke in America anymore. Against the law. I might never leave China," he said, grinning. "So, let's catch up. I brought some beer. Local stuff, but it doesn't suck."
I shrugged and sat down with him, and he opened two bottles of Yanjing Beer for us.
"So, what do they have you working on these days?"
"What you thought," I said, drinking from my beer and taking one of his cigarettes. "Developing nano-weapons."
"Not yet. We're in preliminary design phase. Brainstorming, basically."
"But you'll keep me updated next time I drop by, yeah?"
"As long as our agreement hasn't changed."
"Full citizenship. Still the same," he said.
"Then yeah. When I know something, how do I contact you?"
"Leave the light on in your bathroom when you go to work. When you get back, I'll be here."
I nodded. Then Fernando and I got nicely drunk.
* * *
When I was transferred to Pyongyang, I let Fernando know. I didn't know what I was going to be doing there yet, but he needed to know where I was.
I was there for two months before I heard from him again -- and it was in a way I didn't expect. While working in the lab -- we were in trials on the first version of the nano-weapon -- my cell phone chirped once. A text message.
Get out of the lab. You have an hour before that whole place is rubble. --F.
I didn't question it -- I grabbed my assistant, told the rest of my team I needed to go into the city for some supplies, and got in a truck. Two hours later, we were heading back to the lab when we were stopped by the North Korean military three miles out.
"You can't go any further," an officer told me in clumsy Chinese.
"I'm Director Li, head of the nanotechnology division at Kim Jong Il Pyongyang Research Facility," I told him angrily.
"There is no more research facility," the officer told me.
We waited until the Koreans could raise someone back in Beijing -- myself and a few other survivors were told to come on home, so we did. I went back to my apartment block -- my place had been empty for months. As I walked down the once-familiar streets to my building, I saw a commotion outside on the street.
There was a man smashed against the pavement, as if he'd jumped from the top of my building. Though there wasn't much left of him, I recognized Fernando's body as I passed by to go into the building.
Two weeks later, a package arrived at my apartment. I opened the box and found a new pair of black combat boots -- boots I hadn't ordered or been issued. As I was puzzling over the package, the left boot rang, like a phone.
It took a minute and some fumbling, but I manipulated the boot just enough that a piece popped out of the back of the heel. Inside was a slim cellular phone, still ringing. I answered it.
"I don't speak Chinese, kid. Listen, we don't have a lot of time," the voice on the other end of the line said. It was American -- Texan, unless I missed my guess.
"Who are you?"
"You can call me Reiner. Your buddy Fernando worked for me. Now, shut up and listen. You've been made -- Chink high command was a little suspicious that you and your assistant left just in time to keep from getting nuked."
"Nuked?" I had no idea the lab had been attacked with a nuclear weapon.
"Remember that 'shut up' part? I wasn't saying that for nothing. You need to get out, and get out now. When's the next time someone expects you somewhere?"
"Tomorrow morning. They're holding a meeting to determine where I'll be reassigned."
"By tomorrow morning, you need to be as far away from Beijing as you can be. You're on this phone, so you got the boots. The right one has a radio in the heel, same place as the phone was on the left one. It's set to an encrypted channel the Chinks haven't broken yet, but it's low-power. We're sending someone out to get you, but you have to get within 35 miles of 'em for them to lock onto you."
"Would you stop saying 'Chinks,' please?"
"Oh, right. Sorry about that. You need to get to Troitskoye. Do you know where that is?"
"Annexed portion of the Russian Republic. I know it. That's still well inside Chinese lines."
"I'm aware. We're meeting you halfway. You've got three days to get there. Can you do that?"
"I can sure as hell try."
"Good. In 72 hours, in Troitskoye, turn on the radio and identify yourself as Arnold. The reply will come from 47 Echo. Are we clear?"
"Arnold. 47 Echo. Got it."
"Your English is fine, but your contact will speak Chinese. Transmit in Chinese. Got that?"
"I got it."
"Good. Move, now. Take nothing with you -- your apartment should look like you just stepped out for smokes. Oh, yeah, and wear the boots. They're your size."
The connection terminated, and I put on the boots and walked out the door.
[TO BE CONTINUED]